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LOCAL COMMENTARY -- The Goldberg approach boggles the mind

November 17, 2010

By TOM ROBERTS

Since North Smithfield voters last week rejected the proposal to change from a council-administrator to a council-manager form of government, the question of when that Town Charter amendment would have become effective is now a moot point.
But not so moot is the questionable legal guidance the Town Council did or did not receive in placing that and the seven other proposed charter amendments on the ballot.
When considering the town's budgeted amount of nearly $216,000 for legal expenses, including an allocation of just under $59,000 for the town solicitor, the council's principal advisor in matters of law, it's fair to ask: Why was there ever a question on when the proposed amendments would become effective if approved by the voters? It should been addressed at the start.
To put this in perspective, some background is required:
The Town Charter can be altered but any attempt at this must be according to Article XIII of the State Constitution, which stipulates that amendments, when approved by the voters, "become effective upon the date fixed therein."
Though the Town Council at its July 26 meeting adopted the wording of the eight questions that appeared on that ballot, it did nothing at the time about the language that would be incorporated into the charter depending on what questions were approved. What must be kept in mind is that each ballot question merely explained the proposed revision. Since the devil is in the details, the most important element in this amending process is the language that would reflect what voters approved.
Interestingly, the public record shows that just prior to approving the wording of the questions, council members discussed the "date of the appointment and which council would make the appointment of a town manager" if the first question were approved.
The same record goes on to note that Richard Nadeau Jr., the town solicitor, "proposed that the sitting council at the time could appoint an interim town manager until the new council has time to appoint a permanent town manager."
On August 2, just days prior to the deadline, the council formally adopted the resolution required in order for the Secretary of State to place the questions on the ballot. The resolution was signed by all council members and "approved as to form" as indicated by Nadeau's signature, albeit a lazy-looking "M" that conjures up images either of Mickey Mouse or a pile of nothing.
Since none of the questions included an effective date, it could easily be concluded that legislatively they would be effective upon approval. Fifteen days before the election, a town resident told some officials that the absence of a date certain on the ballot questions strongly suggested that if the first proposed amendment - the one to change to a council-manager form - were approved, the person elected as town administrator would be out of a job.
Later that day, at a council meeting, the town's officialdom proclaimed that all but the first question would take effect upon approval by the voters. But the first question would become effective in December 2012. After all, one noted, there were three people running for that office and the ballot noted it was for a two-year term.
Well, that's not what happened in 1989 when the late Patrick J. Keeley Jr. was elected to a two-year term as town moderator but never served because the electorate at the same time approved doing away with the Financial Town Meeting and assigned budget committee appointments to the Town Council. If eliminating an elective office in that way was valid in 1989, why would it not hold true for 2010? Isn't what's good for the goose good for the gander?
Just eight days before the election, the town's officialdom gathered again but this time acknowledged a "mistake" had been made. And to correct the matter, the council, under the guise of an "educational" handout, finally approved the language that would be incorporated into the charter, reflecting whatever revisions received voter approval. Included in the text, though, was a left-handed way of setting the effective dates by means of a highlighted "Editor's Comment." Under that arrangement, all but the first question upon approval would be effective the first of December. For the first question, the effective date was set for December 2012. (Incidentally, the modification came after some people had already voted by absentee ballot.)
When considering the nearly $216,000 the town sets aside for legal expenses, including just under $59,000 for a solicitor, it boggles the mind to see the town's officialdom take such a Rube Goldberg approach to legislation. What should have been a fairly simple, clear-cut and candid process became a procedure mired in a thicket of uncertainty that could have led to costly litigation.
The Town Council that will take office next month would do well to give all of this very serious thought when considering the appointment of a solicitor.
Tom Roberts is a 70-year resident of Slatersville.

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